by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Donut Addict; photo by Tony Webster from San Francisco via Wikimedia Commons…
“There are many methods for predicting the future. For example, you can read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls. Collectively, these methods are known as ‘nutty methods.’ Or you can put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer models, more commonly referred to as ‘a complete waste of time.’” — Scott Adams, The Dilbert Future
Once upon a time I found myself in a meeting at one of the world’s largest PR agencies. In the midst of a high-tech conference room featuring a tower of gourmet donuts, the PR agency told our mutual client, a Web startup, that they needed to conduct more research.
The client was visibly shocked. They were on the verge of going beta, and had already worked with this PR agency for nearly a year, paying them $10K a month for the privilege. The additional research would cost thousands of dollars more and set the launch back months. Why was this recommendation coming now?
My thought: Just like a giant agency to avoid doing any actual work for a small client.
I also weighed the value of research: it certainly helps — I teach it and require it in my classes — but too much research can leave a company stricken with that deadly disease “paralysis by analysis.” That’s when action gets delayed again and again and again because somebody wants to conduct even more studies. By the time the company completes studying, our modern marketspace has changed so much, the original findings no longer apply. So the company has to now conduct yet more studies on these new developments…
Opportunity Cost + Opportunities Lost
Companies will extol the value of research without considering the opportunity costs: what business did they miss out on while conducting trivial pursuit?
I knew a would-be entrepreneur who talked about starting a business for three years. He jumped through all the official hoops from incorporating to designing a logo because, hey, that’s fun and it feels like work. He also visited prospective manufacturers for his low-tech consumer product. But rather than manufacture a single item, he sent out one marketing survey after another to friends and family. Then, in the midst of his research of people who said only nice encouraging words to him, a competitor appeared. That made him panic. So he finally launched his product in 2008, filling his apartment with boxes of merchandise, when along came something called a “recession”…
Private sector advocates often criticize the public sector for “paralysis by analysis,” but this viral contagion is spreading to the private sector as well from business schools, where most professors exist primarily to conduct research. As a recovering MBA myself, I stress the importance of critically evaluating options, and not just blindly accepting traditional processes or so-called “best practices.” (How I loathe that term.) That’s especially true of research.
Criteria: The Right Amount at the Right Time
Research is absolutely essential before launching any business or major marketing campaign — but only the right amount at the right time. No amount of planning can prepare you for everything. You can’t know exactly what your competitors are planning (unless you’re the New England Patriots). You can’t predict disasters or the stock market. But research and planning are far superior to just working from gut feelings.
You should also conduct as much research as possible in such categories as product safety and potential business partners and spouses. But when it comes to marketing, you should moderate your research urges based on 3 criteria:
- The urgency of your situation. Is there a deadline? Is your competition preparing to launch a similar product? Are your investors breathing down your neck and telling you to get on with it already? In times of urgency, an executive needs to earn their paycheck by making a risky decision. You’re not getting paid the big bucks to sit there and say, “But Captain, I need more time…”
- Your financial resources. Can you afford to hire a professional researcher? I knew a barely competent focus group “expert” who charged $10,000 to conduct a simple session with 10 people, the results of which were completely ignored by the client. (I don’t blame the client. Focus groups have notoriously rejected everything from telephone answering machines to minivans to the TV series “Seinfeld.”) Are you better off searching the Web for the information you need? There’s a reason research consultancies exist: they’ve already done the work, and just need you to buy their book or white paper — an expense, but far less than conducting the research yourself.
- The size of your investment. How much is at risk? If you’re launching a multi-million-dollar project, by all means, conduct extensive research. If you’re running an ad in a magazine, just run the ad. I once worked with a dotcom VP of Marketing (a former computer engineer with a Stanford MBA) who asked me to create a spreadsheet projecting the full range of possible returns on a $3000 print ad. I questioned the value of the research, since not all benefits of advertising can be projected or even measured, but I did as requested. At my rates, the spreadsheet cost $1000. She read only the worst-case scenarios, then declined to run the ad. So essentially, her risk aversion guaranteed a 0% chance of success. As much as I enjoyed the money, for only $2000 more, she could have discovered what would really happen.
The Alternative: Pull a Nike
If none of these criteria justifies conducting research, just do it and learn by doing. Not exactly a revolutionary concept — it’s an option most entrepreneurs prefer. I’m not suggesting that you go big and wide from the start. Rather, test your idea on a small basis — small being larger than a focus group, but smaller than a worldwide campaign.
For example, you can launch your product in a representative mid-sized city like Portland, Peoria, or Pittsburgh before conducting a national rollout. Hollywood often does this with its more experimental films, such as “Paranormal Activity,” gradually expanding the release based on reviews and audience reaction.
Learning by doing is what that client of the giant PR agency decided to do. Rather than conduct additional extensive and expensive research, at my suggestion they fired the PR agency and went ahead with their beta launch: after all, learning is the entire point of going beta. Did they make mistakes that could have been prevented by research? Possibly. At the same time, only real interaction with the market could reveal hidden problems in their business model. And by actually entering the market and handling the day-to-day challenges, they ultimately realized that this particular business wasn’t a good match for their interests, so they wound up selling their startup for a profit to some investors.
No amount of research could have told them whether a business suited them personally. They learned the hard way — but it sure beat sitting around a meeting room staring at polling data, even with a tower of gourmet donuts.
PS: Here’s a brilliant comic on research overzealousness.